In 1992, Rage Against the Machine’s Zach De La Rocha offered a dire warning to a restless but aimless Generation X: “If we don’t take action now,” he sang, “we’ll settle for nothing later.” An anthemic rallying cry and yet, just ten years thereafter, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard was introducing those same listeners to “the sound of settling.”
While the idea of settling carries with it some pretty unsettling connotations, its execution is proving nothing of the sort. In short, the settling down of Generation X, whose youngest members are now turning 30, may very well prove to be a pivotal baby step towards the construction of a more resilient future.
Those born in the closing years of the Baby Boom — the founding punk rock generation — may have set out to fight the power and dismantle the system but this head-butting sentiment inevitably gave way to what’s proven a far more definitive characteristic of Generation X: The desire to sidestep authority in pursuit of a more appealing alternate system of their own creation.
It was, after all, the fuel that inflated the original internet bubble. Unapologetically idealistic and hyperbolic, the rise of the dot-com era served as a sort of sneaky end-run around business as usual. If the Boomers in power didn’t get it, why waste energy fighting them when the emerging internet frontier offered you the prospect of building a whole new world from scrap. To your own specs.
Of course, it didn’t work out exactly that way. The internet panned out to be less an alternate system and more a compelling new wrinkle to the existing one. Companies still needed to make money and innovation for innovation’s sake, no matter how cool, was still folly at the end of the day.
But that’s not the end of the story. What’s important in all this is that, despite the crushing blow of unrealized (or, at least, unrealistic) internet dreams, the defining motivations of Generation X endured. Our instincts still tell us to sidestep power, to make things work on our own terms instead, and nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of localism.
Trends in governance and business over the past half century, with their ideological insistence on centralized efficiency, have reduced us to two extremes. At one end is the self-reliant individual fending for him or herself; at the other are the enormous institutions (both public and private sector) that provide our safety nets and facilitate our access to the stuff we want to buy.
That’s where the power is. Meanwhile, the formerly robust human ecosystem in between — our local and regional communities — has suffered years of malnourishment.
That makes local a pretty compelling new frontier. A new arena in which Gen Xers — now grappling with marriages and babies — can attempt to wrangle control of their own realities outside the imposing power structures held by the Baby Boomers, who always seemed more focused on advancement to greater and greater heights.
That’s what seems to be happening. A recent piece in World Magazine explores the issue, noting some key ripples cascading their way through our culture:
- The baby boom generation (people born between 1946 and 1964) pioneered divorce rates and two-career couples. Many among the [Gen X] crowd .. rebel against that.
- Many commercials seem less focused on achieving prominence in the world and more on the satisfactions of family and community. The popular Volkswagen ad premiered during the Super Bowl shows a mom giving her son a sandwich and the dad coming home from work…
- The media movement two decades ago was toward more centralization, with USA Today and networks riding high. Now the hot area of interest is localism and hyper-localism, with new journalistic websites aimed at small geographic areas popping up and national media like AOL, CNN, and MSNBC seeding neighborhood publications.
- .. Mobility declined throughout the past decade, with not even one out of 10 American households changing addresses in 2010…
Then, finally, the kicker:
- [Gen X’s] emphasis on local control of government, local production and consumption of goods, and local culture…
That’s where things get interesting as an aging Generation X, settling down and establishing roots, begins applying their existing M.O. to the community vacuum they find before them. Interesting because the building of community–and the interdependencies that make it possible–doesn’t happen at 2 a.m., sitting solo in front of a computer screen with a bag of Doritos and a super-sized Mountain Dew. It happens two people at a time as ideas are debated and alliances formed. It happens through a process of negotiation where individuals concede their need for one another and explore equitable common ground from which to interact and collectively advance.
Which is to say, it requires acknowledgement and engagement of other players, some of whom may stand in the way. And that’s exactly the opposite of how Gen X handled things their first time around.Consider the ramshackle story of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The focus of a Levi’s advertising campaign and intense media interest, it’s become a cause célèbre for those exploring progressive trends in localism and the possibilities of rebirth at the community level. But what’s more interesting, at least to me, is its role as a laboratory for these exact generational conflicts.
Sue Halpern, writing for the New York Times, dug into this nicely. John Fetterman who, at 41, is a dyed-in-the-wool, tattoo-laden Gen Xer, may be the town’s Mayor but his most notable accomplishments were achieved by — you see where I’m going with this — sidestepping the town’s existing power structure. This has brought him a lot of attention but it’s also fostered a fair amount of resentment. Enough so, finds Halpern, that his long-term effectiveness may be compromised.
Our tragic dearth of interdependencies at the local level is without dispute, and may prove to be our undoing if future circumstances conspire to reinforce just how much we really need each other. That is our context and Generation Xers, now over 30 and shy of 50, are the ones in the position to do something about it. The question, speaking as a Gen Xer myself, is are we up to it? Can we transcend a generational predisposition to bypass obstacles and instead work together (even with Baby Boomers) to re-stitch the fabric of community or will such efforts ultimately prove unsustainable — another bubble to be popped — and fall victim to the whimsy of generational trends.
It’s no small question. As Philip Bess noted recently on a listserv I subscribe to, “I’m all for it, of course. But if it only lasts for twenty years or so, it’s not going to matter all that much.”